REVIEW: A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole
Dear Alyssa Cole,
I was so excited to read this book. The cover is gorgeous and the book itself had a great start – with lots of fun humour and strong characterisation. I was wearing out the highlighter function on my reader with all the quotes I wanted to put in the review to show how much I was enjoying it. I did stumble over some things later on; I expect many readers, particularly US readers won’t notice or care though.
I have A Princess in Theory on my TBR but I haven’t managed to read it yet. A Duke by Default stood alone well however so I don’t think readers need to have read the earlier book before diving in. That said, there is clearly some extra context in the first novel; something to do with Portia causing some kind of trouble for Ledi and that behaviour risking their friendship? It wasn’t a focus of this book however so I didn’t need to know about it to enjoy Portia’s story.
A Duke by Default begins when Portia Hobbs, daughter of wealthy New York realtors, socialite and party girl (apparently) is waiting at the train station in Edinburgh having arrived early that morning for a three month apprenticeship at the Bodotria Armory. She is embarking on “Project: New Portia”. She has clearly decided she needs to make some changes in her life. She regards herself as a fuck-up, a maker of messes, the person whom others are always cleaning up after. She has decided to stop drinking and hooking up and start making better decisions. Her apprenticeship is the kick start to the next phase of her life.
Portia’s parents think of her as a flighty dilettante and their best hopes for her are a good marriage to a member of the New York elite because goodness knows Portia can’t settle into a proper job. They disapprove of her “little trip” to Scotland. The apprenticeship is just another one of her flights of fancy. Portia’s twin sister, Reggie, is more supportive but there is so much baggage Portia is carrying, with that mix of guilt, envy and love which happens with siblings sometimes, all mixed in together that it’s difficult for Portia to see it clearly. Reggie is the “good twin”, the golden girl and Portia feels she can never measure up.
Tavish McKenzie is about ten years older than Portia and the owner/operator of the Bodotria Armory. He runs it with the help of his younger brother Jamie and Jamie’s wife Cheryl (who also runs a very cool Doctor Who themed eatery out of the armory). Tavish’s and Jamie’s parents are Chilean (their mother) and Jamaican (their dad). Tav’s biological dad was white and, apart from that he inherited the armory from him, Tav doesn’t know much about the man. I admit this never quite made sense to me. I didn’t understand Tav’s singular lack of curiosity.
It was Jamie who did most of the work setting up the apprenticeship. Tav is a bit of a Luddite and a grumpy one at that. He is not welcoming to Portia at all at first.
A woman had once told him he was like the weapons he made: cold, sharp, and designed to repel those who got too close.
Most of what Portia does in the first few weeks is administration and website design with very little actual sword making. In fact (sadness!), there is only one sword she makes through the whole book. I’d have loved more of it, not least because there was so very much opportunity for innuendo.
“I thought there’d be more banging.” Her eyes went wide and she glanced away. “With hammers. On a forge.”
Jamie and Cheryl both call Tav on his bad behaviour though, and Portia stands up for herself too. I loved this:
Tav shifted his bulk, leaning back in his seat. “So you’re just waiting to see which shoe fits, eh Freckerella?”
She didn’t quite like that comparison. People focused so much on the prince slipping on Cinderella’s lost shoe that they didn’t realize the real happily ever after was the moment she realized she was brave enough to go to the damned ball alone in the first place.
“I’m not waiting around for some fuckboy to bring me a shoe. I’m here, working for you. I’m finding my own shoe,” she said.
Tav is not all bad. He realises he’s been treating Portia badly and apologises without making excuses and, over the course of the book makes some important realisations. I particularly appreciated this one:
His feelings weren’t something else of his for her to manage.
When Tav steps up, he is extremely good for Portia, validating her and encouraging her without browbeating her. He appreciates her physical attributes as well.
“Is this where you reveal you’ve got a thing for feet?” she asked.
He glanced up at her, smirk on his lips and gray at his temples. Damn, he was handsome. “I’m discovering I have a lot of ‘things.’ Feet. Ass. Collarbones. Nose. Freckles. One common denominator, though.”
Portia has undiagnosed ADHD and over the course of the story she comes to understand herself a lot better, why she is like she is and how to manage herself to fit better with what others expect of her (a thing she wants to do). She also comes to appreciate herself and her skills too but this is a long journey for her. Her default is to believe the bad stuff, her lens is to anticipate criticism and then believe it.
I related to Portia in a number of ways, especially this one:
Tavish was sleeping; Portia was not. He had his arms around her and was holding her close and, honestly, who slept like that? Holding another human being like a koala hugged up on a eucalyptus tree. Ew.
Portia is black but she is also wealthy and somewhat protected by it from racism. Jamie is black, not wealthy and is also the son of immigrants. Xenophobia and fear-mongering by white supremacist factions about immigration and refugees and are impacting the neighbourhood Tav loves. He teaches the local kids and teens sword-fighting and such (with Styrofoam and/or wooden swords) and the immigration debate is affecting them too. I liked the scenes with Tav and the children. It helped me cut him some slack when he was being less than stellar to Portia in the beginning.
The armory is losing money. Sales to castles and souvenir shops of swords and daggers are down for some unknown reason and the needs of the community are up; Tav gives the kids a meal when they come for a class and there seem to be more and more kids in need. One of Portia’s particular superpowers is internet searching. While digging into old records about the history of the armory for the new web page she’s building, she stumbles across some information which could change everything. The man who bequeathed the armory to Tav was a duke. And apparently Tav is his heir.
This is the bit I stumbled on and I pretty much stumbled my way through the rest of the book. It wasn’t 100% clear but the strong suggestion was that Tav’s mother and biological father weren’t married. There is a reference to the duke having a second marriage which could possibly infer Tav’s mother was his first wife but there is also this:
“Sorry to ruin your little fiction, but she had no interest in his wealth. She turned down his proposal once she saw how detestable the aristocracy was.”
There’s a newspaper article quoted which mentions Douglas Dudgeon was a bachelor when he inherited the title of duke. So, either there was no marriage and therefore Tav could not be the long lost heir to a dukedom or there was a marriage but it was secret and never before discovered which seems equally unlikely. After Douglas Dudgeon died apparently without heirs, the title went to a distant cousin, David Dudgeon. Given that Tav inherited property from Douglas, it seemed to me that had there been a secret marriage, it would have been discovered during the search for heirs and/or around the time the will was read. (I guess there’s a third option; this is a world where real inheritance laws don’t apply – and I could have gone with that had it been made clear in the book that was the case.)
The title, by the way, is Duke of Edinburgh. Which, no. For those who don’t know, the actual Duke of Edinburgh is Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband. Prince Philip was granted the title upon their marriage approximately eleventy billion years ago. The book uses the term “royal duke” from time to time too but the only royal dukes are actual Princes. (Prince Harry, Prince William and Prince Philip are all royal dukes.)
Now, it is true that Prince Philip is a racist misogynist so maybe you did this on purpose to stick it to the royal family? I guess if you did you couldn’t exactly say that in an author’s note. But in any event, given I know who the Duke of Edinburgh is and what is known cannot be unknown, I was thrown out of the story every time the title came up. And after the subject was raised about halfway into the book, it came up a lot (of course). Now, obviously A Duke by Default is fiction. There are plenty of contemporary royal romances around the place which are based in fictional countries or with fictional aristocracy and I’m good with that. Here however, I kept seeing Prince Philip when I was supposed to be seeing Tav (and anyone who’s seen Prince Philip will understand why this was not a good thing in a romance novel). For me, the parts where fiction met reality were not separated quite enough for me to relax into the story.
However, to people who assume or are prepared to believe that both the dukedom of Edinburgh and Holyrood are fictional and aren’t fussed about the laws of inheritance as they pertain to the British aristocracy, it probably won’t matter a whit (and that’s fine).
World-building is as important to me in contemporary novels as science-fiction or fantasy. The use of actual titles and palaces here gave me a kind of cognitive dissonance, particularly because the rest of the book seemed so firmly attached to current real world issues such as racism, immigration and asylum seekers. Not that alternate universes cannot tackle real world issues – of course they can (Gulliver’s Travels anyone?). It’s just that I could not believe the world of A Duke by Default was not the actual world I live in which has in it, a real Duke of Edinburgh who is married to the Queen. The book existed in some kind of uncanny valley where what was fictional was too close to reality.
One other thing; David Dudgeon is not a nice guy and he does something late in the book which I felt needed more overt punishment. I sincerely hope he got taken down the way he needed to and that readers get to find out about it at some point.
There was a lot to like in A Duke by Default. The writing is good, the characterisations strong and the humour engaging. I believed the connection between Portia and Tav and while a lot of their future is somewhat up in the air, I believed in their HEA too. I enjoyed the way the book dealt with immigration and asylum seekers and the way you showed the impact of racism and intolerance on the Bodotria community, in both big and small ways. I liked so much about the book that I plan on bumping A Princess in Theory up the queue and I am all over Nya’s and Prince Johan’s book (A Prince on Paper) too – Johan was a bit of a scene-stealer actually. If not for the whole Duke of Edinburgh thing the book was tracking along to get a high B (- maybe even a B+ had there been more sword making) – so that might be a good barometer for those readers who do not have the same sensibilities regarding the British royal family/aristocracy as I do. As it was, I kept tripping over Prince Philip and the thorny issue of an apparently illegitimate child inheriting a dukedom and it did cast something of a pall over the book for me. I’m Australian and I’ve grown up with this stuff. I remember standing for hours when I was in primary school waiting for the Queen and Prince Philip to pass by and give us all a wave (it wasn’t really that exciting actually – we speculated there was a fake arm at play).
On the other hand, there was this:
The librarian looked up again.
“I need help now. I need to print this article and . . . do you have any books about dukes?”
The librarian’s eyes went wide and she rubbed her hands together with glee. “We have a fantastic romance section,” she said. “Do you need recommendations? How do you like your dukes? Grumpy? Tortured? Alpha, beta, or alpha in the streets, beta in the sheets?”
“Actually, I meant nonfiction,” Portia said glumly.
The librarian sighed. “Aye. Just a warning, love—the non-fic dukes are not nearly as fun.”